The Need for Accompaniment

Accompaniment is perhaps the single greatest need in the Church today. With it, amazing growth and renewal happens. Without it, Christendom crumbles and collapses before our eyes.

Unfortunately, “accompaniment” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords can be confusing and unhelpful. So we need to be clear about what we mean by accompaniment in the life of Christ and his Church.

To be accompanied means that someone commits to us in a relationship that shows love and compassion to us in our need. To be accompanied likely involves one or more of the following: to be seen, noticed, heard, understood, loved, delighted in, celebrated, encouraged, included, affirmed, cared for, walked with, nurtured, fed, sheltered, protected, defended, touched in a meaningful way, comforted, calmed, soothed, taught, guided, counseled, corrected, chastised, or even disciplined. When I am accompanied, I experience at a profound level that I matter, that I am not alone, that I am known and loved, that I am safe and secure, that I belong to a reality larger than myself, and that all will be well. I feel free to be truly myself, without having to pretend or put on a mask. I experience an openness and eagerness for all that is true and good and beautiful.

We are familiar with figures in life who provide this kind of accompaniment: mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, nurses, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and clergy. Or, perhaps we should say that these people can provide these things. Sometimes they do the opposite by using or abusing, controlling or manipulating, neglecting or ignoring.

We live in an age very much like that of the early Church, an age in which the greatness of the Roman empire was fading fast, an age in which marriage and family life had broken down. Jesus urges his disciples to look around them and notice that the fields in the world are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). They have just stumbled upon his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It turns out that the world is full of people like her, people with a deep hunger and thirst, people with a need to be accompanied. Jesus offered her that accompaniment: noticing her, seeing her, understanding her, caring for her, awakening her thirst, and inviting her to embrace the truth. The disciples arrive and ask Jesus about lunch. He explains to them that his food is in doing his Father’s will. He depends upon his Father. He needs to be accompanied by his Father.

This is the first and most important lesson of accompaniment: We all need to be accompanied. This is not simply a need we have as children; it is a human need by God’s design. We are made in his image and likeness. God is love. He is not a solitary God. He is an eternal communion of persons. The call from God is to share in his eternal life, in that eternal communion of love – a far cry from isolation and independence. Certainly, good parents help us to become strong and free and responsible – but hopefully still in a way that knows how to depend upon God and depend upon others. Love of God and love of neighbor are the two great commandments. Love is mutual, not one-sided. If we are not receiving love in a vulnerable way, we have not yet learned how to love.

We begin life utterly vulnerable and dependent,  looking to our primary caregivers, not only for food and clothing and shelter, but for all the other emotional and spiritual needs mentioned above. In God’s plan, these caregivers are a mother and father blessed and united by God in a stable and lifelong covenant of marriage. These days, it is exceptional indeed to find an environment in which mom and dad are intimate friends of God and secure in their covenantal love for each other. In far too many cases these blessings are lacking altogether, or they are only a well-maintained façade, masking misery and dysfunction.  No wonder there is such a gaping need for accompaniment! The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Here in the United States, there are a couple of added challenges. First, there is the false sense of “independence” – which easily becomes an ungodly self-reliance. Is our nation not built upon rugged individualism? We’re just supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, suck it up, and make it happen. That seems to work so well – until it doesn’t, and life collapses on us. That certainly happened to me – a story for another time.

Secondly, there are many in my generation who became “latchkey children” or “lost children.” Parenting books, from Spock to Ferber, positively encouraged moms and dads to raise “independent” children, to leave even babies alone in their sadness and fear so that they could learn how to “self-soothe” (as if this is something anyone can teach himself!). In other cases, circumstances forced children to be on their own, whether due to divorce or due to dual-paycheck households. When not consistently accompanied through childhood, children certainly learn to be independent – but not necessarily capable of receiving and giving love in a joyful and healthy way.  Many of us graduated to becoming lonely and isolated adults, uncertain how to form healthy relationships. Many more of my peers have emerged as the legendary “helicopter parents” of this generation, fueled by fear, and swooping in to rescue their kids from any real risk or responsibility (or freedom or growth). We are perhaps even more accurately described as “Zamboni parents” or “bulldozer parents.” Still unhealed and insecure from our own lack of accompaniment, and still unable or unwilling to admit our need for it, we are determined that our children will never face danger or risk alone – or at all.

Genuine accompaniment is all about gradualness – aiding someone, step-by-step, to become truly strong and free, capable of receiving and giving in authentic human love. Genuine accompaniment fully respects freedom, nurtures growth, and invites to greater responsibility. Most of us tend to one of two extremes. Either we meddle and micro-manage, or we stay aloof and inconsistent.

Genuine accompaniment is an art – these days, a rare art. I find that those who are best at it are those who themselves have received it – and who are committed to continue receiving it. Think of Jesus, who received accompaniment for the first 30 years of his life – and even then was regularly pulling aside from the crowds to reconnect with his Father in prayer. Jesus never ran from being vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us avoid being vulnerable and do not like to admit that we “need” at a such a deep human level. Receiving is perhaps the hardest human thing to do. If we do not learn to, we wind up grasping or seizing, using or taking, controlling or manipulating.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The lack of accompaniment today is a true crisis. Until each of us learns how to receive the accompaniment we need, we won’t know how to give it. Our members will keep drifting elsewhere in their ache for accompaniment. We lament that our young families are turning instead to athletics, or to yoga, or to social media. Don’t they know what they are missing by leaving the Church? True, none of those other things will fill the void they are experiencing. They are turning there because they find some version of accompaniment. When will we allow ourselves to learn and to begin turning our parishes into places where authentic Christian accompaniment happens – starting with ourselves? I know that if and when we do, the growth will be every bit as explosive as it was in the early Church. The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Gradualness: Conclusion

It saddens me that there are some Church leaders who are appealing to “gradualness” and “accompaniment” in a confusing way, as a means of pushing their own agenda. They prefer to avoid difficult conversations about what is objectively true or good, particularly in areas such as marriage or sexuality or gender.

While I wholeheartedly agree that it is often unwise to broach such topics in the first or second (or even tenth) conversation, it is unjust and unloving to avoid them indefinitely. Christian life is all about conversion. Conversion is all about an ever-increasing surrender to the truth and goodness and beauty of God. If we hold back parts of our life in that process, our conversion will falter or fail.

Remember the example of Jesus in John’s Gospel. He always begins with encounter and dialogue. He first sees the people in front of him. He gazes upon them with understanding, empathy, and love. He awakens holy desires in their heart. And then he challenges them with the deeper truth.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a marvelous example. She feels truly noticed, understood, cared for, wanted, accepted, and loved in a way she has perhaps never felt before. As her heart awakens to love, she begins to ache with a deep and intense spiritual thirst. Jesus is accompanying her step-by-step through this awakening and growth. Then, when she shows a strong readiness to follow him, he broaches the difficult subject: “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). She admits the truth. The man she is with is not her husband, for she has had five husbands.

Had Jesus started the conversation there, the woman would likely have felt judged and shamed. She would have entrenched herself even more deeply in her misery, loneliness, and self-protection. But Jesus did not begin there. He began with seeing and loving the person in front of him. Indeed, it was precisely because he loved her so much that he also chose to discuss the difficult questions with her – when she was ready.

The apostle Paul, too, understood the fullness of conversion that must take place. His whole life was one relentless desire to belong freely and wholeheartedly to Christ. If anything was ever hindering his love, he desired to be rid of it. How could he truly claim to love Jesus otherwise? To love someone is to grow ever more intimate in the relationship, willing to overcome barriers and obstacles. The growth is gradual and not without much bumbling and stumbling. But when the commitment to growth is unflinching, the progress will continue steadily.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against those who are “enemies of the Cross of Christ.” They do not want self-denial or suffering. By contrast, the Cross of Jesus is an invitation to pour out our love in free and wholehearted sacrifice.

I truthfully admit that I fear the Cross, that I struggle to trust God and surrender, and that I avoid dying to self on a daily basis. But when I search the depths of my heart, I also see that it is my deepest desire to lay down my life for others! It is my true calling and my true destiny.  I have come to learn that I cannot short-change the receiving of love from God and others. If I do not learn to be vulnerable and dependent and receptive, I will never be capable of sacrificing freely and fully.

God made us to love and be loved. Receiving love means trusting, lowering our defenses, becoming vulnerable, and learning to depend upon God and others. Giving love means sacrifice and (yes) the Cross. Every single disciple of Jesus is called, ultimately, to learn how to love and be loved in this way.

The enemies of the Cross of Christ want a Christianity that does not ask for heroic love. There is no such thing. We are all called, to borrow the image of Gregory the Great, to climb to the top of God’s mountain. It is a rugged and relentless climb, attained only by patience and gradualness. Although we all need to rest and relax, it is utterly unhelpful to settle on a permanent plateau and deny the need to climb any further. If we have sin in our life, we will ultimately need to repent of it. To refuse to repent is to refuse to love.

We in affluent nations are especially susceptible to avoidance of the Cross. We are often unaware of just how anesthetized we have become. We falsely believe that we are entitled to so many comforts and delights (luxuries which billions of others in the human race do not enjoy and never will enjoy). We live with the illusion that we shouldn’t have to suffer. We forget the fall, and the wages of sin, justly deserved. Jesus has paid our ransom and offers us a healing path, but not one that avoids the Way of the Cross. As Paul explains to the Philippians, those who are “mature” understand these things. “Mature” (teleoi) means that one is focused on the telos (the “goal” or the “summit”). No permanent plateaus. Further up and Further in.

It is a grave error to try to separate love and truth. Some focus so much on the truth that they forget to love the person in front of them unconditionally. Others, in the name of love, are willing to ignore or abandon the truth. In the words of Paul, “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

Gradualness is so important – NOT as a means of avoiding difficult truths, but as a means of training us, one step at a time, to embrace the truth in all its fullness.

Gradualness: Lessons from John

Some Scripture passages make conversion sound so simple, like a one-and-done deal: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20). Would that it were so easy! John’s Gospel, by contrast, is filled with encounters and dialogues that tell the story of a gradual and lifelong conversion in the heart of the disciple.

The encounters are many: Andrew (John 1:35-41), Nathanael (John 1:45-51), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-26), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and of course Simon Peter (John 21:15-19).

Each encounter is unique, yet there is a common pattern. We might called it the S.A.L.A.D. method: (1) See, (2) Attune, (3) Love, (4) Awaken, and (5) a Difficulty Directly addressed, or even a Dart thrown by Jesus.

There are also opposite encounters and dialogues – interactions that evoke a hardness of heart, diminishing receptivity, and ultimately a rejection of Christ. Consider the disciples who cease following Jesus when he declares himself to be the Bread of Life and urges them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:25-66), or the Jewish leaders who gradually turn against him (John 8:12-59), or the intriguing Good Friday dialogue with Pontius Pilate (John 18:28-40).

Let’s now take a look at the S.A.L.A.D. acronym and the gradualness that Jesus models for us.

See. First, Jesus sees. He looks attentively at the person in front of him. I hope that we have all experienced this kind of seeing. We all need it, especially in our younger years, but throughout our life. It’s a look of love, one that says “I am interested in getting to know you.” It’s a look that desires to understand, to accept, and to encourage. It is a look that is free from expectations or demands. We just get to be ourselves in the presence of that gaze.

Think of what that look must have been like, for example, to the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery. There were many other looks that they knew quite well: looks of judgment or condemnation, looks of leering or lust – or perhaps all of these at the same time! Jesus begins just by seeing the person in front of him, as one made by God, worth getting to know.

Attune. Secondly, Jesus attunes. He looks deeply into the heart of the individuals in front of him. He gets to know their story, their deepest desires and needs, their greatest joys and most painful heartaches, and so forth. You can tell from each of these encounters that each person felt profoundly understood by Jesus.

Unfortunately, not all of the characters in John’s Gospel are interested in being understood in this way. Some put up defenses. Others insist on wearing a mask and pretending. The same is true of many of us. Not all of us allow ourselves to be understood, even though we all desire it in the depths of our being. It is so easy to feel threatened. Then comes the pride, self-reliance, self-protection, control, power, anger, or blame. I am personally familiar with all of them! Thankfully, God has given me plenty of chances, and in his mercy has allowed my defenses to crack and crumble and collapse.

Love. Jesus loves the person in front of him. It is not a superficial or sentimental love. It is a love that sees right through people – and loves them anyway. Just one experience of love in this way can change one’s whole life. Shame is such an oppressive burden. Many of us are convinced that if others really got to know us, they would want nothing to do with us. The love of Jesus truly proclaims Good News in these dark places of the human heart.

These first three steps of seeing, attuning, and loving are far from a “Pollyanna” approach. Jesus is well aware of the faults of every person he encounters. Just as we have seen in Gregory, Alcuin, and Paul, Jesus chooses to tolerate the evils that still need reforming. The relationship comes first. Unconditional love comes first. First we must be free to be who we are; then we can become free in our acting and doing. Repentance and conversion will come in due time.

Awaken. Jesus awakens desire in the heart of his hearers. Now that they have experienced understanding and love, they once again dare to hope, and the real growth begins. Once desire is awakened, it can catch fire quickly. The Greek word is eros (cf. “erotic”) and it is not uncommon for a convert to “fall in love” with the Lord and show all the eagerness of a lover in a romance. Not only does a lover do anything and everything he can to get to know the beloved and to fall more and more in love, he also feels the urge to proclaim to all the world the wonders of his beloved. I have seen the same when people have a genuine conversion experience. Certainly we see it in John’s Gospel: Andrew rushes off to tell the Good News to his brother Simon. The woman at the well tells anyone who will hear about this man who unlocked the mystery of her entire life.

Difficulties Addressed. Finally – and this point is crucial in John’s Gospel – Jesus addresses difficulties. He waits until the right moment, when he knows the person is ready. Then he hurls a dart or a real zinger. It happens every time.

With the woman at the well, Jesus invites her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). He first saw her, attuned to her, loved her, and awakened her spiritual thirst. Then he confronts her with the truth. She is ready. She confesses the truth. She has no husband. The man she is with is not her husband because she has been married five times. Note that Jesus does not make concessions to the hard life and harsh treatment that she has almost certainly endured, leading her to the point of making these choices. He does not rationalize or downplay her sin. Nor does she! He has gently and gradually brought her to a moment of conversion, so that she can receive the spiritual water for which she so desperately thirsts.

There are other examples of darts and zingers, of confronting the difficulty head on. Jesus exhorts the woman caught in adultery, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). He jabs at Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). He reminds Pilate that he would have no authority whatsoever if it were not granted him from on high (John 19:11).

With Nathanael it is a bit different. When Jesus “sees” Nathanael, he perceives one who is ready right away. Jesus is immediately blunt, in an almost playful way: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit … I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:47-48). We never know what Jesus “saw” under the fig tree, but can assume it was something deeply personal and not entirely edifying. Yet Jesus affectionately accepts Nathanael for who he is, promising him much greater things. Nathanael eagerly follows.

Then there is Simon Peter, the ultimate example of gradual conversion. Peter is the epitome of two steps forward, one step back. The interesting thing in John’s Gospel is that the “dart” comes at the very end, after the Resurrection, when Peter encounters Jesus on the seashore, after the catch of 153 fish.

First there is the gentle invitation to Peter to admit and repent of his threefold denial. He who warmed himself and three times denied his master by a charcoal fire on Holy Thursday is now allowed to affirm his love three times by a charcoal fire, drawing near to true warmth.

But there is more. In the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – the ultimate gift of self in sacrifice (which Jesus had just shown in his Passion). Peter sheepishly responds that he “loves” Jesus with philia – brotherly love – and is told to feed Christ’s sheep. Peter has come so far, and still has so far to go. Jesus gently but painfully invites him to tell the full truth about his conversion. He truly loves Jesus, but is not yet ready to lay his life down for Jesus. One day he will be. He will grow stronger in due time, and will truly become the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. For now, Peter’s love of Jesus is still a work in progress.  It is enough. Jesus invites him, “Follow me.”

Thus in John’s Gospel we see the human capacity to go either direction in an encounter with Jesus. Some of the characters allow themselves to be seen and understood and loved; they grow gradually in their desire and respond step by step. Others react or resist or retreat. In every case John leaves “the rest of the story” untold. We remain free to go in either direction. One thing is certain: We are either drawing closer or distancing ourselves. In such encounters with the God’s love and truth in the flesh, there is no standing still.

Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.

Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.